covid marathon header
Marcie Hopkins, U of U Health.
If COVID-19 is a Marathon, How Do I Get to the Finish Line?
Lifelong runner and psychologist Megan Call shares six practical strategies that work for all of us, non-runners included.

eing a runner is one of my longest-held identities. I’ve run competitively since I was in elementary school. This includes a few marathons, some of which went much better than others. Given this experience, I was a little surprised when people began using the marathon as an analogy for the COVID-19 pandemic. I remember thinking, “One, who would register for this race, and two, where’s the finish line?”

For me, the only race that might be analogous to the pandemic is The Barkely Marathon, an ultra-marathon in Tennessee. Described as the “craziest race in the world,” the course is not well-known and is extremely challenging to navigate. It's icy and muddy, and usually in terrible conditions. And though it’s existed for over 30 years, only 15 people have ever actually finished the race. 

This pandemic certainly feels like a wild race, and while “marathon” isn’t a perfect metaphor, I’ve recognized there are running strategies we can apply to help address pandemic fatigue. Below are some tips I’ve learned along the way as well as tips from professional harriers who I greatly admire that I think can benefit all of us.

Start with the basics: fuel, rest, and recovery days

For performance athletes, there is just as much emphasis on recovery as there is on exertion during training. They take a significant amount of time pre- and post-workout to just take care of the basics. Take sleep, for example. We know marathoners tend to sleep around 10 hours a day when they are in training. They also have a team—trainers, physical therapists, sports psychologists, and nutritionists—who pay special attention to their recovery needs and ensure that they are ready for the next workout. Additionally, pro-marathoners have recovery days built into their schedule so they can run easy, rest, and reset. 

Many of us in health care struggle at times to meet our basic needs, often because we are so focused on helping others. It is important for us all to reflect on important questions like: No really, how am I doing? Who is part of my support team and what is their role? What does an easy day (or easy hour) look like for me? And what can I let go of in order to take care of the basics?

Have a plan A, B, and C

Runners often enter a race with plans in mind for at least three different scenarios. Plan A is that the race goes well and you perform the way you hoped or even better. Plan B accounts for a few mishaps; maybe something occurs, like being off of your pace or getting caught behind a slower group, but you know what you need to do to recover quickly and still meet many of your goals. Plan C is when all bets are off—it’s simply not your day. You’ve hit a wall and will rely on strategies to simply get you to the finish line. By having a general plan for each scenario, you can adaptively respond to a stressor instead of reacting in an unhelpful way. You may not like what is happening, but you have a general idea of what you need to do to manage. 

Many high-achievers (a.k.a. health care workers) only have Plan A: achieve. This is really hard to do in a pandemic. There are likely many moments and days where acting on Plan B or Plan C is more feasible and realistic. What does Plan A, B, and C look like for you? For me, Plan C involves engaging in quick pauses during the day, delegating tasks, leaning on family and friends for support, and focusing on the basics.

Run the mile that you’re in

Inexperienced marathoners tend to solely focus on making it to miles 20 through 26. By fixating on the finish line—the future, not the present—we miss opportunities to pace ourselves, push ourselves and take in the scenery along the way. 

By fixating on the finish line—the future, not the present—we miss opportunities to pace ourselves, push ourselves and take in the scenery along the way. 

Racing this way tends to lead to misery. American Marathon Record Holder Ryan Hall recommends “running the mile that you’re in.” This mindset allows you to focus on what’s right in front of you and makes a large task less daunting. Especially now, during the pandemic, we are all playing many different roles: professional, life partner, parent or child, friend or family member. Being able to focus on the role you are in, or the task that needs to be accomplished, during that particular moment can provide respite and a greater sense of control. We don’t have to think about everything and do everything at once. 

Connect to purpose in no man’s land

Later in a race, the running pack tends to break apart, leaving many runners in a lonely place, far away from any other runner. This is one of the most mentally challenging times during a marathon. It is easy to slow down and start wondering, “Why did I think this was a good idea?” 

It takes a lot of effort for runners to get themselves out of this place. Even though they don’t have other runners around to cue off of, they still have support from the crowds and from within themselves. In 2014, Meb Keflezighi became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since the early 1980’s. On his bib, he wrote the names of the individuals who had died from the previous year’s bombing. He said he reconnected with those names when he felt like he was in no man's land.

All of us have likely felt alone and disconnected at some point during the pandemic. We can find comfort and reconnect to purpose in these moments by having a meaningful quote, story, mantra, friend, or other resource at the ready. We can also look around and see that there are many, many people cheering us on.

Run at 85% instead of 100%

Eliud Kipchoge is a Kenyan long-distance runner who holds the world record for running the fastest marathon—in just under two hours. His personal motto is “no human is limited” and yet his training regimen consists of exerting 85% effort instead of 100%. We could all benefit from following his lead. 

At University of Utah Health, we are go-getters. We say yes to everything and give 100% even if we are experiencing burnout. If we think about COVID-19 as a marathon that we're not trying to win—we're just trying to get to the finish line—moving along at 85% will get us there in a safer, more efficient way.

What would it look like if you gave 85% instead of 100% toward something? My guess is that the job would get done, it would still be of excellent quality, and you would save yourself some time and effort.

Turn back and cheer for your teammates

When I think of a marathon finish, I usually envision crowds cheering, music blaring and runners passing under a balloon arch. What will the COVID-19 finish line look like? Chances are, it will look different for everyone. We won’t all cross the line together at the same time. Many of us will still be dealing with the effects of the pandemic long after vaccines are widely available and operations begin to move back to “normal.” 

What will the COVID-19 finish line look like? Chances are, it will look different for everyone. 

When I ran competitively in college, we had 65 runners on our cross-country team with a 12-minute discrepancy of 5K run times. The runners who finished first always stayed at the finish line to cheer on the rest of the team, down to the very last runner. This is one of the reasons I love the running community. With COVID-19, it’s imperative that those who finish first stay to support and cheer on those who are still combating the pandemic so they too can finish strong. 

In 2017, Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the New York Marathon since the late 1970s. When she was in the last mile of the race, one of the media commentators stated, “All that she wants is in front of her.” It’s the same for us. If COVID-19 is a marathon, it’s certainly one of the hardest races I’ve ever run. That said, I’m so glad I’m part of this team. Let’s get after it. Eyes forward, stand tall, we can make it to the finish line.


Megan Call

Licensed psychologist, Associate Director of the Resiliency Center, University of Utah Health

Subscribe to our newsletter

Receive the latest insights in health care equity, improvement, leadership, resilience, and more.